money really is an object

So, some have asked, some haven’t, and some have been far too polite to ask but really have wanted to know. How on earth did we afford to go off on European shenanigans for a month and a half? Sometimes, honestly, it’s difficult to tell people what we did this summer. We feel like we have to apologize for it in some way. Oh, you went to Europe. You’re those kind of people. A barrier goes up; we become “those people” who must have money squirreled away somewhere, even though those who know us pretty well must be wondering where on earth it is. I mean, they’ve seen where we live, for goodness sake. They know I consider anything without a ‘Mart’ at the end of its name on the expensive side and that I tote our little world around in a dented ’03 Odyssey mom-van. The whole picture just doesn’t compute. But I hate any barriers at all when I talk to people.

I know it’s a dream for other people to do something like this, and I’ll probably work on an article about “doing” Europe affordably. So, for those who are just curious or those who might try it, here are a few of the basics that made it possible. But in truth, it was the non-basics that settle in deep into our lives that began the journey.

  • First, the detail choices. We stayed in a lot of private apartments while there, almost no hotels. (I think we spent two nights in hotels the entire time.) Lots of websites cater to travelers who want to rent apartments. They can be much cheaper for families than hotel rooms, particularly when you then shop at the markets and cook your own meals rather than eating out. The saving on meals is huge.

  • We used public transportation everywhere. No taxis, rental cars, etc. Just feet, trains, buses, metros. Local travel is cheap travel. It’s also more fun, adventurous, and fat-burning.

  • We brought home little more than pictures. Lots of those. But other than that, who really, really needs a cuckoo clock or the Pope on a pair of boxer shorts? More ‘stuff’ is so unnecessary, particularly when you have to haul it all around in a small carry-on.

Then there was the big choice we made at the beginning of the year–that we wouldn’t buy anything new the first half of the year beyond food and toiletries. We hoped that would make us debt-free by the time we left with some accumulation to spend, and we were right. You can save a lot of money by not spending any. Elementary, I suppose, but not so easy to put into practice! Just try it sometime. (See the January 12 archive to understand exactly what I’m talking about.)

But I think perhaps the biggest choice was one we made a long time ago. It was the one to give our kids experiences over things. They have never had Xboxes or Iphones or TVs in their rooms. We have never had new cars. No one here is exactly deprived, but there has been a certain unspoken philosophy that overrides a lot of decisions on where money goes and doesn’t go. It’s not a decision that’s better or worse than anyone else’s, just one that makes the difference when it comes to “can we afford Europe?”

For us, the answer is, can we afford to let the time we have with our kids go by and not experience what we can with them? I guess it’s a more urgent question for me, since one of my parents was gone by the time I finished high school and the other ten years later. Do I have time to waste having things together when we can do life together? Like I said, it’s not a better or worse choice. But it’s a choice, and it’s one that got us where we were this summer.

We’re not those people. Not by a long stretch. I don’t like barriers, which is, I guess, why I like to experience life with those kids.

the eye

It intimidates me. Sitting there, at eye level. Pointing is omniscient eye right through me. It resembles that of a vulture — a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it falls upon me my blood runs cold, and so by degrees—wait, rewind. Wrong story. There is an interesting tale regarding Edgar Allen Poe and me, but that I will save for another day.

Our new computer came equipped with a camera. Yes, I know that’s not exactly new technology, but it was to me. Now, I have the technology, as they say, to give in to my friends’ pleas to spend my time on Skype, if I so choose. Or any other number of uses for that creature perched up there above my screen.

The thing is, I’m 97% sure I don’t choose. Think about this. With three teens and a spouse, my time at the computer is limited anyway. I get the hours between when my high school daughter gets dropped off and my college daughters get up. Granted, sometimes that’s a wide window. Still, it’s my time. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. And besides spending the required half-hour with online jigsaw puzzles and Facebook, I really should spend that time in gainful employment.

Besides there is a bigger problem. If you put the camera on me right now, here’s what you might see: My pajamas, which could be the new pretty purple ones or possibly the orange Godspell T-shirt and mismatched pants. Glasses, out of current fashion (possibly out of any fashion) because my eyeballs can’t handle the thought of sticking foreign objects (contacts) into them so early. Hair that looks like it went through a salad shooter. And yes, I did drive my kid school this way. Now you know the real reason I do not speed on the way to school. This is not a pretty sight. This is why I have professional photos done. It’s not a daily occurrence, mind you, but like I said, I’ve got to grab my time when I can get it.

Sometime last year, I saw a video presentation on Nehemiah. No not the easiest book in the Bible to find nor the most often quoted. So if you can’t find it, don’t feel bad. But the point that stood out was his reply to messengers who came wanting him to stop working on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem to attend to their business. Not his business–theirs. Perhaps it was important business, or good business (in this case, it wasn’t), but it wasn’t his. And so his reply–

“I cannot come down; I’m doing a great work here.” I guess that’s how I really feel about the idea of letting one more technological media ogre in my life. I love connecting with those I care about on Facebook. I love getting back in touch with my long-lost friends. But sometimes, I have a great work to do, and if I dare come down, I can easily get lost in other things. The same thing happens with the jigsaw site, or that drawer that needs reorganizing. Or a good book, or even a bad book if I really want to procrastinate. It’s so easy to avoid putting another brick in that wall (no not a reference to Pink Floyd). Especially when it seems like that’s all I ever do, and the wall seems just as infinite as ever. Just this morning, I spent a couple hours putting together an intelligent query to a new magazine about an article I wanted to write. Less than an hour later, they sent a reply proving they had spent far less time reading my letter than I had reading their magazine. That brick seems like such a total waste of time.

But, I know I’m doing the work I am meant to do. So, I’ll keep on stacking bricks. Please understand. When stacking bricks, you have to make choices about what you won’t try to do at the same time. If you don’t, you may start to drop them. And only bad things can happen when one starts to drop bricks off a ladder.

What choices do you make to let go from your life to stack your own bricks? You’ll probably never see me online on chat. And I may never turn that camera on live. At least, if I do, I’ll make sure I’m dressed first.

so many books, so little time

They say a silent blog is a bad thing, and so this has been. Busy I have been, since our return, reading. Reading, in fact, twenty young adult novels as quickly as I can possibly get them finished. Preferably before the school year began, but as I have two to go, that feat was not attained, clearly.

Each year since our oldest was in seventh grade, I have had the privilege of helping to coach the junior high Battle of the Books team. Think literary Jeopardy. The kids read as many of the books off the list of twenty as they can before the battling begins. Then they meet other teams from the area and are asked questions about what they read. I don’t mean questions like “What was the theme of such and such book?” I mean questions like, “What color eyes did John Smith have?” They’ve got to know these books. And so do I to be able to coach them. After reading each one, I write up about fifty questions on it to quiz them and hope I remember the answers.

I do get some pretty curious looks reading Redwall on the train, but overall, it is a great experience. Beyond exposing me to some excellent writing and allowing me to rediscover that junior high students are a fun and interesting lot, I have learned a quite a bit from reading young adult literature. Things such as:

  • Every teenager has at least one parent who is dead or has abandoned him. Failing this, a sibling dying of cancer or a parent in jail makes an adequate substitute, but it should be understood that this is subpar. If your teenager is missing this in his or her life, someone has failed somewhere.
  • Weasels, rats, and snakes are always evil. Always. Cats are iffy. I think the weasel anti-defamation league should have something to say about this. But apparently there is little to be done about it, because it is pretty universal. Cats probably don’t resent it at all, though. Being the independent sort they are, they prefer to keep everyone guessing.
  • Fourteen-year-old boys who have never so much as hiked a half-mile or mastered the secret decoder ring inside the Lucky Charms box can defeat a team of international spies on the side of a cliff with a week of training and the right amount of determination and wisecracking attitude.
  • Cover artists do not read the books they do artwork for. If they did, they would not draw a heroine with red hair when she clearly is described with raven black tresses. Or a hero on a motorcycle when he has a gold convertible. Actually, I learned this a long time ago when my first book came out and I looked at the cover and, instead of the thrill that is supposed to run through you, I went, “The guy’s eyes aren’t supposed to be brown.” So when a kid is asked in battle, “What color is Mennoly’s hair?” and she gets it wrong, can she at least share the blame here?
  • Rural grandmothers are the best relatives to have on earth. They will do things that, if you did them, could get you arrested or ostracized, and they will take you along for the ride. When I grow up, I want to be just like Grandma Hiddle. (Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech). Huzzah.
  • The most interesting people are always drama geeks or writers. But I knew that already.